Çatalhöyük and Human Nature

Çatalhöyük

When talking politics, I seem forever to be told that my egalitarian ideas just don’t work. This usually takes a simple form. “Socialist can’t work because ‘Stalin’!” But then I dig down into people’s thinking. It is all the same: humans naturally depend upon incentives. If people can’t become rich they won’t work. This kind of argument shows just how much mainstream economics has poisoned our society. There is nothing “natural” about modern society.

Çatalhöyük represents a stable and successful egalitarian system. So why don’t capitalists engage with it as an example of socialism?

Look at the history of humans. Through most of our time on Earth, we have lived in extremely egalitarian communities. Paleolithic cultures (small nomadic groups) had very little hierarchy — especially regarding gender. It was only during the Neolithic (when humans lived in non-nomadic settlements) that hierarchy began to rise. At first, this seems to have been the result of increased fertility. Women spent more time pregnant. But specialization meant that a religious class could rise up. This ultimately destroyed the traditional egalitarian and democratic basis of earlier societies.

(That’s right Virginia, the Greeks didn’t invent democracy.)

But there is at least one Neolithic city that remained egalitarian. And it did so for roughly 1,800 years. Çatalhöyük. It was founded 9,500 years ago in southern Turkey. At its peak, it had a population of 10,000 people. It’s remarkable for a number of reasons. As I’ve discussed before, the people developed farming after the city was settled. This is the opposite of what archaeologists had long thought was always the way Neolithic cities came into being.

Economic Egalitarianism at Çatalhöyük

What’s most notable about Çatalhöyük, however, is the absence of “great houses” — temples and so on. This isn’t because they lacked religion. The houses are littered with religious objects. And different houses have different levels of religious iconography. But the people who had higher levels of religious status did not have higher levels of economic status.

This is remarkable. It’s almost as though the people of Çatalhöyük thought that all people should have the necessities of life. Their people didn’t have to hunt around the garbage heaps to find food. Indeed, there were no poor people.

Ian Hodder is the current head of excavations at Çatalhöyük. In the following half-hour video, he provides an overview of what we know about the city:

I’m not saying that Çatalhöyük was some kind of utopia. But it is an example of people forming what seems very much like an anarcho-communism system. And they didn’t find it necessary to allow their most productive members of society to live in large houses inside fences. Somehow, everyone managed to get by without roaming police to incentivized economic policy.

Stalin vs Capitalism

Recreated Çatalhöyük Home
Recreated Çatalhöyük Home

One thing most Americans forget about the Soviet Union is that it started in an economic hole. Russia was a very poor country. Under Stalin, the people became richer at a faster rate than Americans did. I’m not saying this justifies the brutality of Stalin. But why do we focus on it when apologists justify capitalism in the same terms? “Yes, millions starve each year because of capitalism, but it is justified because of all the poor people who get pulled out of poverty!”

If the justification for capitalism is that it “works” then there is nothing to criticize Stalin about, right? I personally have a problem with both. But capitalists pretty much never engage with the problems of the system. And when they do, they simply brush away all the deaths associated with it. In these arguments, capitalism never fails. When there is a failure, it is because capitalism isn’t being done right. The fact that capitalism has never been “done right” is not engaged with.

Çatalhöyük as Socialism Example

Çatalhöyük represents a stable and successful egalitarian system. So why don’t capitalists engage with it as an example of socialism? I think it is the same reason they always rush to Stalinism: they don’t know of any other socialist system. The entire basis of their critique of socialism is based on Cold War propaganda.

Counterarguments

But if these people did defend against the troubling example of Çatalhöyük, I know roughly the lines of their argument. They would say that this is just one city and the model would not scale up to the world. But that begs the question. Humans have invaded all parts of the world — creating untold environmental damage — because of capitalism. Do we really need 7+ billion people on this planet?

Çatalhöyük was not some isolated city. It traded far and wide. It was a major exporter of pottery.

But I still don’t see how this model does not scale up. It’s not like Çatalhöyük was some isolated city. It traded far and wide. It was a major exporter of pottery.

“Ha!” I hear the capitalists say. “It was involved in trade so it wasn’t socialism!” I am constantly shocked at how ignorant people who defend capitalism are. Markets are not a thing that capitalism created. Capitalism is simply a system in which people can own infrastructure and thus make money for doing nothing. (It doesn’t speak well of the defenders of capitalism that they are economically ignorant about the very systems they defend and attack.)

An Example Nonetheless

But Çatalhöyük is a good example of socialism regardless of any holes that can be poked in it. That is because it shows that there is nothing natural about the social Darwinian model of human behavior. Humans live good lives without being incentivized by huge profits.

Today, we assume that people won’t work unless they are constantly under threat of living on the streets. This is what Paul Ryan was getting at when he said, “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.” Why did he think this? It isn’t based on evidence. It is just something everyone “knows” in modern America.

Çatalhöyük proves this is not true. The fact that we have trained generations of humans to live awful, meaningless, competitive lives doesn’t make it natural. And it also provides hope. We can untrain people. We can allow them to see the truth. Humans are social animals. We take care of each other. We don’t need the promise of millions of dollars to go to work.